In the Navajo language there is no word for art. The nearest translation is “hózhó.” “It means being harmonious with everything,” explains Landis Bahe, the soft-spoken, 34-year-old, “full-blooded Navajo” who was chosen from 47 local artists to create this year’s Vegas Valley Book Festival posters.
It’s no easy achievement, hózhó, particularly in Las Vegas, a city contradictory to the Arizona reservation where Bahe was raised, and where he learned to draw from his dad’s family, all untrained artists, like him. “We’d roll out a piece of paper and [say,] ‘All right, I challenge you to draw a horse.’” In 1996, Bahe moved here to work in construction. “It’s destruction, but it’s actually construction because you’re building something,” Bahe says of his 11-year stint in explosives—his first project being the Hoover Dam Bypass. The Navajo clansman struggled with his conscience: “You’re supposed to be kind to the earth. You’re not supposed to destroy it.” He once spotted a bird in a nest, just before an explosion. “I was torn up,” he says, clearing his throat of emotion.
Bahe kept a sketchbook in his truck, where he would steal minutes to draw. “It was always on my mind.” Then the economy tanked, leaving him laid-off and free to pursue a new career.
Now, Bahe’s canvas paintings hang at Sticks and Stones Tattoo Co. In one piece, a Navajo boy dressed in conventional garb wears an electric blue headdress. Other paintings feature masks and feathers and fields of corn. The traditional Navajo images depicted in vibrant colors and a graffiti-like style (Bahe experiments with tattoo techniques in his art) reflect the boy on the reservation, and the man he became under the glare of Sin City’s neon. While his culture-coalescing style is garnering the attention of both the Navajo people (one of his paintings hangs in the Navajo Nation’s president’s office) and Las Vegans, not all of it is favorable: “It’s not really accepted by most of the elders in my culture,” Bahe says. Traditionally, Navajo art is more realistic and done in earthy tones.
“Nobody can tell me what to paint, and what not to paint, but I feel it when I get stares for things like this,” he says of an acrylic-on-canvas painting of an owl (purchased by Pawn Stars’ Austin “Chumlee” Russell). The owl is the Navajo symbol for death, and as an artist Bahe felt compelled to paint it, but the clansman in him was unable to finish it. “This is a big no-no in Navajo culture,” he says of conjuring the owl, which is why it has paint drippings for talons.
“I didn’t fully paint him, so I can’t say I painted an owl.” The conflict reveals the inherent conflict at the root of Bahe: Navajo, artist, Las Vegan.
Another painting, of corn on a cob floating skyward, seems to represent a more harmonious and balanced man, one who’s achieved some hózhó–except only Bahe understands the piece. The Navajo wonder why it isn’t on a stalk and more realistically portrayed. The rest of us are confused by his subject choice—corn? “But the corn is so important to the Navajo,” Bahe explains, “The corn pollen is what we pray with.”
Bahe’s book festival posters are less controversial. For the Children’s Book Festival poster, Bahe painted a portrait of his daughter reading from an illuminating book. The Comic Book Festival poster allowed the Marvel fan to conjure his own superhero: a blind blackjack dealer who throws poker chips as weapons. Several colorful books flying over a building represent the freedom that reading brings in his third festival poster.
When Bahe and the festival committee had differing ideas about the posters—they wanted the subject of his daughter’s glowing book to be recognizable; Bahe wanted to leave it open to imagination—he asserted himself as an artist. “Being from the Navajo culture, you don’t do that. You don’t press your way,” Bahe says—but he’s proud of himself for doing so, even if it isn’t in keeping with harmony, because it is in keeping with artistry.